Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered the gene responsible for baldness in plants. The gene explains why some alpine plants are hairy while their low-lying peers are hairless.
New genetic analysis suggests snapdragon plants living at high altitudes have evolved the ability to turn off the genes responsible for silencing hair. The tiny hairs on their stalks and leaves help protect plants growing on sunny cliffs and hillsides from harmful ultraviolet rays.
Meanwhile, plants growing at lower elevations remain bald. For snapdragon plants living in shady valleys, the tiny hairs, called trichomes, are unnecessary.
The hairs of some plants secrete useful chemicals, including the antimalarial drug artemisinin, as well as compounds that lend herbs and hops their unique flavor profiles. The new research, published this week in the journal Current Biology, could help plant scientists engineer hair production in plant that produce valuable chemicals.
"Because trichomes protect plants and their secretions are the source of economically important compounds, including pharmaceuticals and flavors, regulation of their development is a target for crop improvement and biotechnology," scientists at the University of Edinburgh wrote in their paper.
By breeding alpine and lowland snapdragons with each other, scientists were able to isolate the gene responsible for limiting hair growth. The gene is switched off in alpine snapdragons, but remains on in lowland plants.
Scientists determined the species was originally hairless and that gene mutations deactivating the hairless gene -- and thus, encouraging hair growth -- among alpine snapdragons proliferated as a result of their protective advantages.
"This exciting discovery gives us a chance to find out the rest of the genetic toolkit that controls plant hair growth," Edinburgh biologist Andrew Hudson said in a news release. "It could also help us work out why exactly being hairy is an advantage for alpine plants."